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The Susan Rice email isn't any sort of smoking gun

Posted May 20, 2020 11:36 a.m. EDT

— On Tuesday, acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell released a previously classified email sent by Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice on January 20, 2017 -- detailing a meeting between the president, vice president, FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates on January 5 of that year to discuss Michael Flynn.

Republicans seized on the email as proof that Flynn, a top adviser to Donald Trump's campaign and the soon-to-be national security adviser, had, in fact been the target of a covert operation by the outgoing president in an effort to hamstring his successor.

"Wow. Ongoing spying from an outgoing POTUS on the incoming POTUS—directed by Obama himself—is unprecedented in the 243 years of our nation's history," tweeted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz about the email on Tuesday.

There's just one problem here: Rice's email proves nothing of the sort. In fact, it proves the opposite of what Cruz, Trump and lots of other Republicans have been insisting for years was going on in the final days of the Obama administration. Rather than revealing some sort of rogue, extralegal spying by Obama and his top advisers, it shows a president going out of his way to ensure that all laws and rules are followed -- while also acknowledging that Flynn's dealing with the Russians meant that everyone involved needed to proceed very carefully.

Before we get into the actual meat of the letter, let's remember some key context. Rice notes that the meeting came on the heels of an intelligence community briefing "on Russian hacking in the 2016 election." We now know that the intelligence community had concluded that Russia had sought to actively interfere in the 2016 election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. The Russians did so because they believed Trump would be better for their interests than Clinton. (The special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee probe reached the same conclusions.)

And let's also remember that Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the frequency and content of his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. (The Justice Department moved to drop the case against Flynn earlier this month .)

OK, now to the nitty gritty of Rice's email. Here's the key bit:

"President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by Intelligence and law enforcement communities 'by the book.' The President stressed that he is not asking about, initiating or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective. He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book."

Um, so, Obama insisted that any concerns about Flynn be handled by the proper agencies and authorities and made sure to be clear that he was not asking for any sort of special treatment? Wow! Caught red-handed -- following the rules.

Moving on, Rice writes this:

"From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia.

To translate: Obama wanted his top aides to be mindful of the fact that there was at least the possibility that someone (or someones) within the incoming Trump campaign had been compromised by the Russians when preparing and briefing the incoming administration on the geopolitical landscape. Why did Obama advise a cautious approach? Because he had just received a briefing from the intelligence community in which he was told that the Russians had worked to interfere in our election to help Trump and hurt Clinton!

There's a bit more from Rice on that topic:

"President Obama asked if Comey was saying that the [National Security Council] should not pass sensitive information related to Russia to Flynn. Comey replied 'potentially.' He added that he has no indication thus far that Flynn has passed classified information to Kislyak, but he noted that 'the level of communication is unusual.'"

Again, Flynn admitted that he lied to the FBI about the breadth and depth of his communications with Kislyak! So, in hindsight, it seems as though the concerns voiced by Obama that they needed to be aware of the possible ties between Flynn and the Russians when briefing the incoming administration seem entirely justified.

Republicans have claimed, with little evidence, that Rice's email is suspicious and suggests that she was covering up a deeper conspiracy. But her descriptions of the Oval Office meeting are consistent with congressional testimony from Yates and Comey, who were there, and others who were briefed about it afterward.

Rice's email was sent to herself, in the waning hours of the Obama administration, 15 days after the meeting. In her response this week to the Republicans' allegations, Rice has not explained why she sent this email to herself, though it looks like a memo for the record to memorialize a sensitive meeting.

It's not at all clear to me why any reasonable person would see any part of this Rice email as evidence of anything other than the Obama administration seeking to protect national security interests at an extremely touchy time between an election and an inauguration. There was ample evidence at the time, and even more now, to suggest that caution as to what Flynn was told was the right approach. And Obama expressly said that he was not directing the FBI -- or any other law enforcement agency -- to do anything regarding Flynn other than to follow existing procedures.

This isn't a smoking gun. It's how responsible government operates.

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